The Language We All Speak

by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah


Going to the opera is a lot like stepping into a movie. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I was 14 or 15 years old, and my high school music teacher took a group of us as a special school excursion. The Glyndebourne Opera Theater was less than 50 miles from my home, but it felt like a million miles away. It was, in a word, magical—and vastly different from the concrete housing state I would return to later that evening. Almost like another world.

Outside, the setting couldn’t have been more beautiful. There was a cobblestone courtyard and peacocks in the garden, and tiny fairy lights that added to the otherworldly air of the grounds. Inside, we sat on red velvet seats, where we had a great view of the elaborately set stage. I was fascinated by the costumes, and the fact that the singers didn’t need microphones. The opera itself was a story of love and romance and heartbreak. It actually reminded me of the epic Bollywood movies my family would watch when I was growing up. During the intermission, I stared at the men in their black tuxedos and bowties, and the women’s wonderful hats. It was an incredible experience that was different than anything I’d ever witnessed before, and I was totally immersed in every moment, taking in every gesture, every movement, and every sound.

Decades later, I still think about this formative experience. I think about it when we invite groups of kids to Jonesborough to watch a show in our state-of-the-art storytelling theater. For many of these kids, coming to ISC is their first experience with the performing arts—and I hope it will stay with them, as that night at the opera has stayed with me.

Very recently, I gave two keynote talks at music-based organizations. One was for the National Museum of African American Music, in Nashville. The other was for the League of American Orchestras, a national advocacy organization. Now, I can beatbox, and play the Jemba drums, and sing to myself when I’m cooking or in the shower. But I’m not in any way a trained musician, so it was interesting to participate in these events that were for people who are. Could I possibly speak their language?

A long time ago, at a literary festival in Glasgow, I met an attorney who was once Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speechwriter. He told me about how he was a trained clarinetist, and that he’d often used musical theory in his work drafting the speeches. He described imagining Dr. King as the instrument, and then considering composition and cadence of the words as he worked and wrote.

I love that little detail because it’s a reminder of how all of us across the arts are so closely interconnected. There’s music in the spoken word. Since I work at the International Storytelling Center, I tend to see everything as a story. A dance, a painting, or a symphony: those are all stories to me. I’m not a musician, but I strongly feel that we’re all doing different versions of the same work.

The storyteller Bill Harley talks about storytelling as a “seed art,” in the sense that it’s embedded in almost every art form, including music and dance and the visual arts. At ISC, we’ve always showcased musicians who tell stories and storytellers who play music. The two forms are so often intertwined, something I think about often in Appalachia. A few years ago, ISC co-founded the Lyrics & Lore conference in partnership with Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. Country, bluegrass, ballads, and other types of music that are native to this area often showcase traditional folk tales and stories, and other narrative forms. And I think many places and cultures have a similar relationship between song and story, like the folk music I grew up with that told stories about places very far away, including the farmlands, and villages, and lush green fields of Punjab, in northern India.

At ISC, our friend and collaborator David Holt often says that, early in his career, he would tell stories in between his songs. Then after he started coming to Jonesborough, he would share songs in between his stories. I’ve observed how Sheila Kay Adams, a seventh-generation storyteller, banjo player, and balladeer, switches naturally between stories and songs. It’s almost like being bilingual, with both languages blending into a larger conversation.

Many years ago, in Scotland, I ran an arts program that was founded by the great Helen Keller when she came to receive an honorary degree from Glasgow University. It originally started as a small literary award, but had grown into a multifaceted arts program by the time I took it over. The point of the program was to challenge the stigmas associated with disabilities. We had an expert panel of judges who would assess each piece of work based on its merits. Some of the people who participated were blind or deaf (or both), and they could submit their work from anywhere in the world. Often we engaged with performers who participated in the arts in multifaceted and unconventional ways. In that setting, the arts felt less siloed than they often do in more rigid and formal settings. It was incredible to watch these unique collaborations unfold, and reflect on just how much all the arts have in common.

Another arts project that I worked on in Glasgow was commissioning an ensemble to create a piece that reflected the cultural diversity of the city. The project included musicians from many different backgrounds: players who came from the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and Scottish traditions like travelers from Roma-heritage communities. They worked together for weeks. While they came from many different musical traditions, they could appreciate one another’s craft. They crafted a contemporary piece that was performed at the museum as part of an all-day concert that reflected the city’s incredible diversity.

As a “seed art,” to use that phrase again, storytelling is infused in many other disciplines, even beyond the arts. I’ve seen firsthand how important it can be in peacebuilding, where it can be used to build understanding between communities, and in health care and social work, where caretakers can use stories to connect with their patients and clients.

Speaking at these music conferences, I shared my perspective as someone who appreciates music rather than as someone who has expertise. I thought about my childhood experience at the opera, which had sparked my imagination and a real sense of wonder, and reflected on how we who work in the arts can recreate that sensation for audiences today. Whether it’s a live storytelling event or a night at the symphony, the magic is in creating a moment that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Online or in person, there’s a special conversation that takes place between a performer and the audience. You might even call it a relationship, though it’s more contained than the relationships we have in our personal lives. And that experience, as much as the artwork itself, can be transformative. Seeing that opera at the Glyndebourne showed me a new world that I knew I wanted to be a part of.

Across the arts there’s an appreciation for the beauty of the cultural expressions that exists around us in different forms. This is perhaps easier to recognize intuitively with an art form like music, which has an incredible power to touch people from all cultures. But it applies to all of us. Some years ago, a person from our local storytelling guild told me about an experience they had at the National Storytelling Festival. It wasn’t from one of the large stages under the big tents, but at the swapping round, an intimate venue with haybales that are managed by local tellers. Anyone can sign up to tell a story there. On this occasion, a group of Japanese tellers visiting from abroad had signed up to tell a story in English. But the local guild member requested that they perform in Japanese.

The tellers were perplexed by the request. How would anyone be able to understand the story? But the guild members, long experienced in the art of storytelling, knew that a good story is about more than just the words. They felt confident that they would understand.

The language of the arts transcends mere words. It’s something deeper that speaks straight to the heart. That’s the experience the arts provide, in all its many forms, and something we always hope to embed in everything we do at the International Storytelling Center. No matter who you are, or where you come from, we will always try to speak your language.